The Magic of Mashpi

By Dominic Hamilton

When I was a boy, the husband of an au-pair we had had when we were little would perform magic tricks at our house. He was an amateur magician. We would gather round the dining room table after lunch or dinner, my sister and brother and I. Opposite us, he would begin dealing cards for us to pick, or else do illusion tricks with his hands. He was pretty talented – or at least I thought so when I was little.

Visiting Mashpi Lodge, I am reminded of that feeling of awe and wonder that I felt back then. That sense of amazement, a blend of delight and incomprehension, as well as the eternal question: “How did he do that?”

The answer in the case of the magician was illusion, of course. Tricks of the trade that fool the eye and the brain into believing that coins can magically appear behind ears, or that cards can be picked out amid a pack of 52.

Mashpi’s magic is different. The answer to “How did he do that?” is scientific. Science has indeed many answers to our questions. The rational explanations for natural phenomena have made our world understandable, measurable, have brought it into the realms of our comprehension, no matter how complex. But there is also a point when the pragmatic and Cartesian melts away and one is left with nothing but wonder.

Take clouds. I love clouds. Watching clouds in Mashpi is perhaps one of the greatest delights I’ve experienced over the last decade. Clouds are magical, clouds are magic. I have no qualms about getting airy-fairy or hippy-like about my love of clouds.

The clouds in Mashpi play hide-and-seek with the trees, mountains, hills and valleys. They form, dissipate and disappear. They smother, blind, disgorge. They wisp, they float, they twist and twirl. They dance the dance of life.

The scientific explanation for this dance lies in altitude and the effects of condensation. The upper, higher-altitude part of the Mashpi Lodge Reserve lies in what scientists call ‘cloudforest’ or upper montane tropical forest. The lower altitude forests are termed rainforest. Here, on the western slopes of the Andes, the ecosystem is under the influence of the Pacific Ocean and its currents. The winds that blow in from the Pacific carry moist air, the result of evaporation on the surface of the sea. This air makes its languorous way inland, over the lowland forests and farms of Esmeraldas Province.

Finally, as they push eastwards, the clouds meet the tendrils of the Andes Mountains – the world’s longest mountain range that runs longitudinally across the western coast of South America, from Tierra del Fuego to Venezuela. When the moist, tropical air meets these mountains, it begins to rise. As it rises with altitude, it cools. As the air cools, the water molecules begin to combine, to merge, forming larger molecules, which, to us, look like clouds. Depending on the climactic pressures of the day – the forests’ trans-evaporation from the strong sun can create its own clouds within the Reserve – the clouds merge and meld, to form gigantic rain clouds that disgorge their contents on to the forest below.

The bio-region that forms the Chocó, of which the Mashpi reserve is part, is one of the rainiest places on the planet. Here it rains cats, dogs and pumas. In New York’s Central Park, it rains 1.2 metres or 50 inches a year, about the same as the British Isles. In Mashpi, rainfall reaches over 6 metres or 240 inches. So, about five times as much rain falls on these forests. That’s a lot of water.

This magical, molecular dance happens every day in Mashpi.

It can be explained through science, as we’ve seen. But as the inspiring Baron Alexander von Humboldt pointed out, in his extraordinary opus Cosmos,

From the remotest nebulæ and from the revolving double stars, we have descended to the minutest organisms of animal creation, whether manifested in the depths of ocean or on the surface of our globe, and to the delicate vegetable germs which clothe the naked declivity of the ice-crowned mountain summit; and here we have been able to arrange these phenomena according to partially known laws; but other laws of a more mysterious nature rule the higher spheres of the organic world, in which is comprised the human species in all its varied conformation, its creative intellectual power, and the languages to which it has given existence. A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the limit, but does not pass it.

There is a point where the ‘arrangement of phenomena’ isn’t sufficient to explain mystery and wonder. I’m no scientist, unlike the great Humboldt, so my experiences at Mashpi have always been tinged with my – innocent, ignorant, romantic? – view of Nature as fundamentally inexplicable.

Take the ride on Mashpi’s “Dragonfly”. I witnessed the building of this titanic engineering feat back in 2012, saw the human toil that the construction of this cable car through the forest exacted. Dozens of men. Steel towers. Reams of cables. Sack upon sack of cement. Piles of rebar. The work to create the 2-kilometre-long “tropical ski lift” took months and months amid the rain and mud of the reserve, all conducted with the greatest respect for the forest environment in which it was built.

The cable car stretches across a stunning piece of forest. One travels in a metal gondola, open to the elements all around, silent but for the moment when the gondola passes over a tower. Silently the gondola glides, at times over the canopy, at times at the height of trunks and foliage, sometimes above sinuous rivers and cascading waterfalls.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of flying in the Dragonfly. It’s not flying, to be honest. It’s like floating, travelling through another-worldly land. Like a dream sequence you can vaguely recall when you wake up. A dream of flying. A dream that, once the experience ends, you aren’t quite sure you really lived at all. More magic.

The Dragonfly allows one to appreciate the forest from all these different angles, particularly effective if you’ve been tramping along the trails and through the rivers earlier in the day, when one’s perception of the ecosystem is determined by one’s height relative to the trees and plants and undergrowth.

All of a sudden, aboard the Dragonfly, this perception is radically changed and challenged, transformed. The shadowy leaves that were silhouetted against the sky are flipped to reveal their green essence, their fingering plight for light. The diversity of trees, identifiable on the forest floor by the different sizes, colours and textures of trunks, is now revealed in a sea of different leaf shapes, colours and sizes.

The effect of the gondola is panoramic, here amid the mountains of Mashpi. Were the landscape flat, it would still inspire awe. But the reserve is a land of hills and valleys, peaks and troughs, anything but flat. As the gondola glides, this landscape re-arranges constantly. It makes me think of a zoetrope carrousel, where all is determined by the position of the eye. It’s one thing to appreciate the forest from the static point of Mashpi’s Observation Tower. But it’s another completely to find yourself travelling, constantly changing one’s point of view, one’s perspective.

To add to this effect are my friends the clouds. The weather in Mashpi is so dynamic, so changeable. It’s impossible to predict. This makes riding the Dragonfly that much more exciting. It’s rare to travel in blazing sun – sun is a rarity in Mashpi, it has to be said. To add to the sensation of constant perception-changing caused by the motion of the gondola, the land itself changes and re-arranges. Only cloudforests can add this new layer of magic.

Wisps of clouds move dreamily between the clasps of the canopy in the distance. Floating formations literally take shape before one’s eyes. Then disappear. In an adjacent valley, the grey-white underbelly of a clump of clouds signals rain is falling. Even more striking, you can actually float your way into a cloud, to be smothered in whiteness and muffled sounds, where the eye struggles to find reference points beyond the metallic green of the gondola itself, only to re-emerge again on the other side, the world suddenly brought back to detail, to colour. Tell me that’s not magical.

My romantic love of clouds and magic can be sated anywhere in Mashpi. On the lodge’s second floor, there’s a corner window which looks out west across the valley and hills, where an elegant chaise-longue has been handily placed. Perfect for cloud contemplation.

Lying in bed in the early morning glow of dawn, amid a profuse world of trunks and leaves and vines and branches, the world seems primordial. Mashpi’s floor-to-ceiling windows allow one to lie comfortably amid the sheets and simply gaze blearily out. Sometimes, the forest is still, with only the occasional flit of a bird or the twirl of a falling leaf. Sometimes, it’s changing, morphing, as the clouds come in and erase the details.

One of my favourite places to observe the molecular dance is from the deck of the Life Center. The structure lies to the northwest of the lodge, following the main ‘road’ and then entering a forest path. It was built primarily as the lodge’s butterfly house, a place for science and for guests to find out more about the incredible world of butterflies and moths that inhabit the reserve. After its first basic incarnation, a circular deck was built on one side, which provides a wonderful spot from which to observe the forest – part of the forest here was cut down before the reserve was established. This open space is punctuated by a few palms and trees that make it a fine place to birdwatch and, for me, sit back to appreciate the magic.

You see, magical!

Maybe from reading all this, you think that I’m only interested in clouds. But wonder and magic can be found everywhere in Mashpi. Take the Science Lab. Even though scientific investigation has been fundamental to the Mashpi project, the Lab is one of the newest aspects of the Mashpi experience.

Here, Andrea Tapia and her team can begin to explain the numerous projects they’ve undertaken since the establishment of the reserve. Begin, because you could spend days with them and only then glean an idea of all that’s been done here in Mashpi.

The newest aspect of the Lab is the display of the creatures the team have collected over the years. Although I knew of this work from my visits in the past, and I suppose I’ve seen some of these creatures on my explorations, I don’t think anything prepared me for their beauty.

Perhaps we should quote our friend Alexander von Humboldt again:

“Our imagination is struck only by what is great; but the lover of natural philosophy should reflect equally on little things.”

So while there is greatness in the views, in the ballroom brilliance of the forest and clouds, here in the Science Lab, the little things shine: the gigantic horn of a beetle; the impossible blue of a morpho butterfly; the changing metallic-sheens of dozens of bees and wasps; the transparent perfection of a Dobsonfly’s wing structure; the clever camouflage of moths (whose wings look like eyes)…

Here are the little things in all their wonderment. But their beauty is, perhaps, magnified more by the fact that we are observing them within the context of scientific investigation, not randomly in a collector’s box. The pursuit of knowledge with the objective of conservation and the greater good drives the team here. The Mashpi project’s initial driving force was conservation. A biologist, Carlos Morochz – who you can meet as the Expedition Manager – was employed way before the first stone of the lodge was laid. This initiative is as strong today as ever. And the Science Lab is one manifestation of the lodge’s mission to communicate the reserve’s wonders and its forests’ importance to all who come into contact with it.

We’ve travelled in this article from this vision of clouds, across the forests aboard the Dragonfly, through the lodge’s windows and lookouts, and to the science at work every day… finding magic wherever we’ve gone.

Whether it’s the clouds, birds’ behaviour, a butterfly’s colouration, the interaction of plant and insect or animal species, the night-time cacophony of the frogs and toads, the slow-motion drip of water from a leaf, the rivulets and rush of rivers, the curl of a fern, the impossible number of greens, the drama of the hills, all of it is magical to me.

Truly, to quote another Humboldt groupie, Charles Darwin, “There is grandeur in this view of life”.

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